Herbs and Spices in History




Doug Harrison & Lowell Barton





Humans have been trying to spice up their life, and their food, since long before recorded history. It didn’t take our ancestors long to discover that certain plants, and their seeds or leaves, could add that extra something to whatever they had hunted or gathered. While the four basic uses for herbs and spices are preservation, medicine, aromatics, and flavor, more imaginative and exotic uses have always added mystery to them. The great lovers Antony and Cleopatra used spices such as cinnamon as aphrodisiacs (in that period, the Roman word for cinnamon was equivalent to the current use of ‘sweetheart’ or ‘darling’), the executioner of the Greek philosopher Socrates used the root of hemlock, and the witches of Shakespeare . . . “For a charm of powerful trouble. Like a hell-broth boil and bubble. Double, double toil and trouble” . . . used nearly everything. For better

or worse, the spice trade has caused more wars, fortunes, and loves to be gained and lost than any other single trade product including gold. But don’t worry too much; in this book we are mostly interested in the flavor, not the exotic or erotic properties—although some interesting side effects may surprise you.


Although trade had been conducted along the ancient Silk Road since Roman times, the European world didn’t begin its serious grab for spices until around the thirteenth century, after Marco Polo (c.1254-c.1324) and his father and uncle had followed the Silk Road to China. The opening of this ancient trade route marked the start of serious spice trade between East and West, but it wasn’t easy.


The Spread of Trade and Ideas along The Silk Road


The Chinese wanted spice from India and, later, the Europeans wanted silk, and they both wanted spice from the Spice Islands (now the Moluccas, between Sumatra and New Guinea, part of modern Indonesia), but they traded culture as well as goods over the road.


The Silk Road had its origins around 206 BCE when a Chinese princess of the Han dynasty was sent (probably kicking and screaming) to marry a ruler of the Xiongnu, a nomadic people of Mongolia and southern Siberia. Neither territory was then very appealing, especially to royal sensibilities. In fact it was downright barbaric. The princess was sent for the purpose of calming the bellicose Xiongnu, who had generally made a pest of themselves for several hundred years with their constant raids on Chinese settlements. While the Han considered the Xiongnu barbarians (poor princess!), they hoped the marriage would make good in-laws of the Xiongnu.


Even though the Xiongnu remained a gang of bad boys, the princess apparently charmed her barbarian husband enough to persuade him to establish a string of oases and towns that would eventually become the Silk Road, thus tying the Han and the Xiongnu together. This was achieved in the amazingly short period of fifty years. Trade on the Silk Road would last for nearly 1,800 years more.


A Caravan along the fabled Silk Road


In 134 BCE, a Han emissary named Zhang Qian began to notice some of the essential requirements for the proper operation of the Silk Road trade. As well as capital to fund the caravans, oases and towns had to offer shelter, food, and water to travelers; guard stations were needed to warn merchants of dangers en route; interpreters and translators were essential, as were guides, camel grooms, and maps or oral descriptions of the routes. Stable governments along the route were also required, to keep the caravans free of bandit harassment. In other words, Zhang Qian set rules for an early Holiday Inn-style travel service along a type of pre-conceived Route 66.


In about 659 BCE an Arab merchant by the name of Mohammad married a rich spice trader’s daughter and set up what the European traders called a ‘Muslim Wall’ by creating a stranglehold on spices moving along the Silk Road. He also used his traveling agents (like the Jehovah’s Witnesses of today) to preach his newfound religion, Islam, along the trade route. This ‘Muslim Wall’ would stand from the seventh century until the opening of sea routes to Calicut (in southwestern India, the gateway to the home of the spices) at the end of the fifteenth century.


The gradual decline and downfall of the Tang dynasty in the late ninth and early tenth centuries, and the growing turbulence in Central Asia involving the western Crusades and the violent establishment of the early Ottoman Empire, resulted in a dramatic reduction of commerce on the Silk Road. However, cultural contacts among civilizations, via the Silk Road, continued, and, facing a fragmented and politically unstable world, the post-Tang Chinese sought solace in Buddhism, a religion that had reached China and Southeast Asia from India along the same trade route. Seeking greater understanding of Buddhism, Chinese monks had long traveled to India.


Xuanzang (b. 602 AD), the most well known of these pilgrims, had journeyed to India as early as the seventh century to study with Buddhist masters, visit important religious sites, and gather Buddhist texts and artifacts. His account of his travels and adventures describe Buddhist art, culture, and the ritual of a peaceful philosophy.


In the thirteenth century, the Mongols erupted from their desert homelands and created the largest contiguous land empire in world history. They conquered and ruled most of the territory through which the Silk Road ran, andencouraged the greatest flow of merchants, craftsmen, and missionaries across Eurasia until that time. Marco Polo, arguably the most renowned traveler ever, visited the Orient between 1271-1295. For these twenty plus years he traveled all over China and was employed by the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan in various official capacities.


When polo returned to Venice, he was captured and taken prisoner during a war against the Genoese, and it was during his incarceration that he dictated his story—probably with lots of youthful exaggeration—to his fellow inmate and storyteller Rusticello. His account, The Description Of The World, provides colorful anecdotes that describe such themes as: the organization of empires; Mongol military structure and strategy; the status of women in nomadic pastoral societies; technological diffusion; toleration of the religions of subjugated peoples as a tactic for governance; sightings of unicorns (probably Indian rhinoceros); and the Mongol invasions as a possible source of the Black Death. His book was referred to by his countrymen as Il Milione or “the Million Lies” for a long time afterward.


The collapse of the Mongol Empire and Vasco da Gama’s late fifteenth-century discovery of the sea route from Europe to Asia led to a precipitous decline of the Silk Road’s strategic trade importance in Central Asia. The flourishing oases and towns sank into poverty, and nomadic empires such as the Xiongnu and the Mongol could no longer compete with the advanced military technology (guns, rifles, cannons, etc.) and the growing populations of their neighboring civilizations. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Qing (Ch'ing) China and Tsarist Russia gained control over these former Mongol regions, and ruled what was by then a mostly Turkic Muslim population. Central Asia and the Silk Road seemed to disappear from the historical stage.


Now the Spice Wars of the European nations began in earnest. For a long time before the Silk Road, and for hundreds of years before the Portuguese da Gama’s arrival by sea at Calicut (the gateway to the Kerala region and its pepper crop), the secret of controlling the spice trade was simple: first, maintain a high demand, and, second, provide a short supply. Some of that control was provided, for the native owners and suppliers, by the climate and origin of the plants, and some through centuries of mercantile shrewdness.


Da Gama was kicked out of Calicut on his first arrival in 1498, but he returned in 1502. There is a legend that, before leaving Calicut, da Gama asked the zamorin, or samudrin raja (Hindu king), to be allowed to take a pepper plant with him for replanting. The zamorin’s courtiers were upset, knowing the value of their pepper source, but the potentate simply said, “You can take our pepper, but you will never be able to take our rains.” He knew that the region’s twin monsoon seasons were unique to his domain, and that the fickleness of the pepper crop demanded such a climate. Even today, when pepper is grown outside the region, Kerala reigns supreme in the quality of its product and dominates the high end of the pepper market.


Six years before da Gama found his sea route to India around southern Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, the Spanish sent Christopher Columbus to find a western route to the spice trade. Of course, he merely arrived in the Americas (long after the Celts, Vikings, Basques, and Chinese) and confused the world to this day by naming the natives ‘Indians’ and their sacred chili ‘red pepper.’ He did this in a vain attempt to appease his employer and patron, Isabella, queen of Spain.


Because of their aggressive maritime explorations and their brutal treatment of native inhabitants, the Portuguese, from the early 1500s on, became early masters of the spice business. In 1580 the Spanish finally gave up their attempt at fair competition with the Portuguese. Phillip II of Spain brought Hapsburg rule to Portugal, the two countries were united, and the Spanish took over Portugal’s established spice trade.


The Spanish then tried to cut out the Dutch, who were becoming downright nasty in trying to grab a piece of the action. This irritated the pragmatic Dutch, and they duly formed, in 1602, what was to become the first great capitalist corporation, the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or the VOC, known to non-Dutch speakers as the Dutch East India Company. By 1670 it was the richest corporation in the world, paying shareholders an annual dividend of forty percent on their investment. Their success was based on a total lack of morality.


One of the most efficient of the early Dutch traders was Jan Pieterszoon Coen, a monster who monopolized the nutmeg trade in the typical style of the period. In the Banda Islands, he simply killed all of the native males over the age of 15 and took over their nutmeg forests. The population was about 15,000 when he arrived in 1621; it was less than 600 when he left, two years later.


However, the Dutch East India Company was not all that successful as a colony builder. In 1664 they were forced by the English to surrender their North American colony called New Amsterdam, now known as Manhattan. As compensation they were offered an insignificant nutmeg-producing island in the East Indies no larger than a medium-sized farm.


In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Euro-American spice trade suffered with the introduction of coffee and chocolate, as well as the religious stigma attached to herbal healing (associated with witchcraft). While no such bumps in the road were felt in the eastern markets, the western trade suffered to the point that the VOC shut down, and good riddance.


Fortunately for us today, surviving companies like Durkees, McIlhenny, McCormick, and many others, provide the world with a uniform and constant supply of herbs and spices, without the accompanying wars of the past. A general timeline of human use of herbs and spices for preserving and flavoring food, and for medicinal purposes, is published by the American Spice Trade Association, and is shown below:



60,000 years ago: Indications of herbs and roots used as medicine.

50,000 years ago: Meat wrapped in herb leaves has been found (in residue) by

archeologists in cave floor excavations in Africa and the Middle East.

5000 BC, Middle East: Evidence of spice trading.

3000 BC, Egypt: Spice used in embalming the Pharaohs.

2500 BC, Syria: First written record of spice use in medicines.

2000 BC, Arabia: Creation of the first spice monopoly.

1950 BC, Arabia: The Bible mentions Joseph (and his many colored dream

coat) being traded to a spice caravan.

1500 BC, Egypt: Queen Hathepshut imports spice from Punt (East Africa).

1000 BC, Palestine: Spice oil used for anointing and incense.

922 BC, Arabia: Queen of Sheba gifts spices to King Solomon.

600 BC, China: Confucius promotes spices as medicines.

500 BC, Greece: Physicians list 400 herbs and spices as medicines.

200 BC, China: Establishment of the Silk Road to export silk and import


100 AD, Rome: Extravagant use of spice fragrance and fumigation to make

Rome livable (it smelled bad and was home to a lot of mosquitoes). Rome

establishes sea trade with Arabia that would last for 300 years.

500 AD, Europe: Spices from the Molucca Islands become available through

trade with Arabia.

659 AD, Arabia: The prophet Mohammad establishes the ‘Muslim Wall’

to monopolize the spice trade with European nations and to spread Islam

through his traders.

700 AD, China: China, after a period of isolation, re-enters general trade

with massive junks in the Indian Ocean.

1100, Europe: Christian Crusades stimulate interest in spices.

1200, England: Guild of Pepperers established (1180), later merged with the


1250, Europe: Spices are regarded as aphrodisiacs.

1300, Venice: Marco Polo’s The Description Of The World

stimulates interest in Oriental spices.

1350, Europe: Spices are used as medicines and fumigants during the Black

Death. Venice and Genoa control the European spice trade.

1400, England: Guild of Spicers becomes the Worshipful Company of Grocers.

1400, Portugal: Henry the Navigator opens sea routes to the spice trade.

1450, Asia Minor: The Ottomans control the overland spice trade, forcing

Europeans into discoveries of new sea routes.

1492, Spain: Columbus finds new spices in the Caribbean.

1500, Portugal: Vasco da Gama sails to India, giving the Portuguese control

of the spice trade.

1500, Spain: Magellan expedition circumnavigates the globe.

1525, Venice: Spice wealth helps finance the Renaissance.

1550, England: Drake circumnavigates the globe and brings new spices to


1600, Holland: The Dutch wrest the Spice Islands from Portugal. Dutch

East India company formed in 1602. Spain enters the trading wars.

1650, Holland: The Dutch, in control of the spice trade from the East Indies,

create an artificial shortage of supply to Europe.

1700, Ceylon: Coffee trees planted.

1700, Europe: Coffee, chocolate, and tobacco become more popular than


1750, France: Peter Poivre brings nutmeg and cloves to Mauritius and the

Reunion Islands to compete with the Dutch.

1800, Britain: The British control the Spice Islands briefly.

1800, America: Pepper trade with the East Indies makes millionaires of merchants

in Salem, Massachusetts. (Yale University founded on spice money.)

1850, Europe: Spices decline in popularity; sugar becomes a favored flavor.

1900, World: Spice trade declines in favor of coffee and tobacco.

Today, World: Herbs and spices more popular than at any other time in history.

The herbs and spices in this book are used in many cuisines around the

world, but it is not a coincidence that two of the world’s most flavorful cuisines,

Cajun and Thai, use many of the same spices and herbs. However, the variations in flavor are amazing. Vive le difference!


From the book: It's Hot! Cajun and Thai Sledgehammer Cuisines


Copyright 2005 Doug Harrison & Lowell Barton




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